Jul 26, 2010

Glenn's Picks for September

The three choices are...

Dark Star Safari, Theroux
From Publishers Weekly: "You'll have a terrible time," one diplomat tells Theroux upon discovering the prolific writer's plans to hitch a ride hundreds of miles along a desolate road to Nairobi instead of taking a plane. "You'll have some great stuff for your book." That seems to be the strategy for Theroux's extended "experience of vanishing" into the African continent, where disparate incidents reveal Theroux as well as the people he meets. At times, he goes out of his way to satisfy some perverse curmudgeonly desire to pick theological disputes with Christian missionaries. But his encounters with the natives, aid workers and occasional tourists make for rollicking entertainment, even as they offer a sobering look at the social and political chaos in which much of Africa finds itself. Theroux occasionally strays into theorizing about the underlying causes for the conditions he finds, but his cogent insights are well integrated. He doesn't shy away from the literary aspects of his tale, either, frequently invoking Conrad and Rimbaud, and dropping in at the homes of Naguib Mahfouz and Nadine Gordimer at the beginning and end of his trip. His trip fuels the book's ongoing obsession with his approaching 60th birthday and his insistence that he isn't old yet. As a travel guide, Theroux can both rankle and beguile, but after reading this marvelous report, readers will probably agree with the priest who observes, "Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story."

Devil in the White City, Larson
From Publishers Weekly: Not long after Jack the Ripper haunted the ill-lit streets of 1888 London, H.H. Holmes dispatched somewhere between 27 and 200 people, mostly single young women, in the churning new metropolis of Chicago; many of the murders occurred during (and exploited) the city's finest moment, the World's Fair of 1893. Larson's breathtaking new history is a novelistic yet wholly factual account of the fair and the mass murderer who lurked within it. Bestselling author Larson (Isaac's Storm) strikes a fine balance between the planning and execution of the vast fair and Holmes's relentless, ghastly activities. The passages about Holmes are compelling and aptly claustrophobic; readers will be glad for the frequent escapes to the relative sanity of Holmes's co-star, architect and fair overseer Daniel Hudson Burnham, who managed the thousands of workers and engineers who pulled the sprawling fair together on an astonishingly tight two-year schedule. A natural charlatan, Holmes exploited the inability of authorities to coordinate, creating a small commercial empire entirely on unpaid debts and constructing a personal cadaver-disposal system. Larson is most interested in industriousness and the new opportunities for mayhem afforded by the advent of widespread public anonymity. This book is everything popular history should be, meticulously recreating a rich, pre-automobile America on the cusp of modernity, in which the sale of "articulated" corpses was a semi-respectable trade and serial killers could go well-nigh unnoticed.

When Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris
Summary from Booklist: Sometimes the originators of a certain trend in literature are surpassed by their own disciples—but, this is Sedaris we’re talking about. When it comes to fashioning the sardonic wisecrack, the humiliating circumstance, and the absurdist fantasy, there’s nobody better. Unfortunately, being in a league of your own often means competing with yourself. This latest collection of 22 essays proves that not only does Sedaris still have it, but he’s also getting better. True, the terrain is familiar. The essays “Old Faithful” and “That’s Amore” again feature Sedaris’ overly competent boyfriend, Hugh. And nutty sister Amy can be found leafing through bestial pornography in “Town and Country.” Present also are Sedaris’ favored topics: death, compulsion, unwanted sexual advances, corporal decay, and more death. Nevertheless, Sedaris’ best stuff will still move, surprise, and entertain.


Jul 17, 2010

Tinkering at Armando's

Armando raced back from Merced and, with a little help from Garth, put together a fine meal of good old fashioned meatloaf.  Just the right menu for a cool fall night spent contemplating a novel whose most vivid settings were in the cold outdoors.  As comfort food, it was the perfect accompaniment for the conversation that followed, with its emphasis on death and dying.  We were especially touched by  Armando's account of the joy and pathos surrounding his mother's recent funeral.

The Book
Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Tinkers, had the virtue of brevity, which compensated for the disjointed narrative style.  According to Doug, after Harding had drafted this story of a dying father's reminiscences about his own father (and son), he shuffled its chapters in order to collapse the generations (and, according to some of us, confuse the reader).  

Our comments were all across the board.  But many reflected an appreciation for Harding's elegance with language, the visceral impact of his story, and the various metaphors (especially that clock!) for our mortality.  Nevertheless, Peter griped about the deathbed obsession with mortality, Garth saw a plot suffused with mental illness, Dan found the story haphazard even though he insisted he read it while sober, and Paul and Tom A were both underwhelmed by the spareness of the story.  

Our voting produced a miserly 4.8--faint praise for such an acclaimed title but certainly in keeping with our mixed feelings about this elegiacal father-son novella.  

Next Up
Glenn gave us several fine choices for September, but the vote came down to a nailbiter between serial murder and magnificent architecture in turn-of-the-century Chicago and the musings of Paul Theroux as he revisits eastern Africa.  With a little prompting from Garth, who clearly felt our political sensibilities have been dulled by too much award-winning fiction, we went with Dark Star Safari.